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5. Late Cubism

Source: Oxford University Press

The most eventful and innovative period of Cubism was before 1914, but after 1918 Cubism returned as a central issue for artists in France. It continued as such until the mid-1920s, when its avant-garde status was rendered questionable by the advent of geometric abstraction and by the rebarbative presence of the Surrealists in Paris. Many Cubists, including Picasso, Braque, Gris, Léger, Gleizes and Metzinger, while developing other styles, continued on occasion to produce work that was clearly Cubist and that was attacked and defended as such. It is impossible, indeed, to date the end of Cubism, since such artists as Braque, Picasso and Gleizes returned to Cubist modes long after 1925, and since forms of avant-garde art directly responsive to Cubism emerged as late as the end of the 1920s and the 1930s in, for instance, the work of the American Stuart Davis and the Englishman Ben Nicholson. In France, however, a sharp decline in its significance is clear from about 1925.

Cubism was changed, moreover, by World War I. In 1914–15 the Cubists were dispersed either to the Front or abroad; those that continued with their art, including Picasso, Gris, Lipchitz, Laurens and a recent convert to Cubism, the Mexican Diego Rivera, were left relatively isolated. Cubism re-emerged as a significant force in 1917 with the première in Paris of the ballet Parade, produced by the Ballets Russes with a scenario by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie and sets and costumes by Picasso , and especially with the support given by the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, who took up not only the artists stranded by Kahnweiler’s exile in Switzerland but also many others, including Laurens, Lipchitz, Metzinger, Herbin and Severini. Soon after the Armistice on 11 November 1918 Rosenberg mounted a series of Cubist exhibitions at his Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in Paris, culminating in an exhibition by Picasso, all showing wartime work. Cubism was featured in exhibitions devised by organizations such as Lyre et Palette and in new periodicals such as S.I.C. (from 1915), L’Elan (1915–16) and Nord-Sud (from 1917). There were attempts, led by Louis Vauxcelles, to claim that Cubism was finished, but these exhibitions, along with a well-organized Cubist showing at the Salon des Indépendants in 1920 and a revival of the Salon de la Section d’Or in the same year, demonstrated its survival.

By 1920 Cubism had become almost exclusively associated with the question of the autonomy of art. The changes that had occurred in Cubism were remarked by a number of commentators, including the artist and critic André Lhote, who himself was often called a Cubist. By this time Picasso was working in a variety of styles, but he continued occasionally to produce expressive Cubist work, while Léger, after his recovery from war wounds in 1917–18, produced Cubist pictures with references to modern life that were even more explicit than before, as in The Typographer (1919; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.). Most of those associated with Rosenberg’s gallery, however—including Gris, Metzinger, Lipchitz, Laurens, Herbin and Severini—made direct reference to observed reality but were at pains to stress the self-sufficiency of their pictures and sculptures as objects in their own right. Lipchitz, for example, came close to complete abstraction in carvings such as Standing Personage (1916; New York, Guggenheim; for illustration see Lipchitz, Jacques). There was also a tendency to give priority to the orderly qualities of Cubist composition, so that Cubism became part of a widely noted phenomenon in French culture at the end of the war, a return to classical traditions referred to by Jean Cocteau as a ‘rappel à l’ordre’. Gris played a leading role in these developments; the clarity and sense of order of the work he produced between 1917 and 1920 led to its being referred to by the critic Maurice Raynal as ‘crystal’ Cubism. This narrowing of the frame of reference to a more purely formal one that excluded reference to the types of concerns manifested in Cubism before 1914—for example to Bergson’s concept of duration, psychological interpenetration, the occult, the fourth dimension and the dynamism of modern life—coincided with the appearance from 1917 to 1924 of a coherent body of theoretical writing about Cubism; influential texts were published by Pierre Reverdy, Maurice Raynal and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and, among the artists, by Gris and Léger. Their theories, supported in the writings of Reverdy and Raynal by reference to Kant and Plato, strengthened the insistence on the autonomous purity of art. The distillation of Cubism and its part in the ‘rappel à l’ordre’ have been linked to the tendency, shown by many of those left on the home front, to evade the realities of the war and also to the cultural dominance of a classical or Latin image of France during and immediately after the war. Cubism after 1914 can be seen as part of a far wider ideological shift towards a more conservative stance in French society and culture alike.

In the early 1920s confusion was caused by the decision of several Cubists to produce overtly classical figurative work either exclusively or alongside Cubist work; Picasso was the model, having developed parallel classicizing styles from 1914. There was, however, a consistency in the common Cubist and figurative themes of Classicism and order, and in the common accent on formal priorities. The Cubists considered classical styles above all to be structured formal idioms under the control of the artist. Cubist art itself remained extremely varied and changeable both within the oeuvre of a single artist such as Gris and across the work of artists as different from each other as Braque and Léger. Yet, Cubism as a publicly debated concept or movement became relatively unified and open to definition. Its apparent theoretical purity made it a gauge against which not only traditional academic art but such contrasting tendencies as Naturalism, Dada, Surrealism and various forms of abstraction could be measured, even though many of the more radical artists who attacked Cubism were specifically indebted to it. While late Cubism produced no major innovations, its self-imposed limitations and its greater coherence, both as a public phenomenon and in terms of theory and practice, prepared the way for a more general acceptance of Cubism as a whole and particularly of the ‘essential’ Cubism of the years prior to 1914.

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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